Getting Social

Social networking isn't necessarily the first term we associate with the utility sector. Rather, it's closer to things such as smartphones, tablets, texting, Facebook and Twitter--things in our consumer lives.

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Social networking isn't necessarily the first term we associate with the utility sector. Rather, it's closer to things such as smartphones, tablets, texting, Facebook and Twitter--things in our consumer lives.

Many of us use social networking every day--some 728 million of us on Facebook alone. We use it to help plan family activities, complete projects, schedule meetings and connect with others to get help with everything from schoolwork to jobs. So what does that have to do with mobile service technicians getting the job done in the field? Plenty, it turns out. Beyond all the tweeting and sharing, social networking is about:

  • Planning,
  • Collaborating,
  • Event coordinating, and
  • Problem solving.

These functions are all applicable to field service, as is instant access to primary groups, which then generates into secondary groups. The end result: overlapping circles of knowledge that can lead to quick problem-solving.

Rethinking social networking in terms of planning, collaborating, event coordinating and problem solving, utilities can be well served by social-style tools. Forget the social aspect of it--think of its potential to make a mobile workforce more efficient and productive through real-time, targeted communications.

In utilities, productivity can be lost. Every day, technicians run into all-too-familiar troubles:

  • A missing tool or piece of equipment, or a manual that takes a half-hour to track down, then even longer to physically acquire it;
  • Time-consuming, trial-and-error attempts to fix a mechanical problem; and
  • Unforeseen events, such as an accident on the route to a job that can delay a technician for hours, throwing off an entire day's schedule.

Why do these problems occur in the first place? Often it is the result of a lack of the right kind of communication and collaboration between team members, both in the office and the field. Utilities are dealing with critical or even potentially catastrophic scenarios--simply making random calls, sending texts or having access to a database of manuals aren't enough.

What's missing is the context in the communications. Apps such as mobile workforce management hold certain amounts of information about jobs and the field workforce taking on those jobs. By combining this information--proximity, tool status, skill sets, inventory control or any other critical variables--with communications tools, field service operations can work more effectively, independently and quickly.

Context-aware collaboration can recognize the user's location in relation to other team members, the work being done, the skill sets of the other nearby team members, and what tools or equipment are available within the team to help complete a job. It allows instant, online communications between technicians, creating their own social network, one that benefits their companies and customers as well as the individual employees. Technicians can access critical information within moments, in real-time, while chatting with other team members simultaneously.

Advanced Communications Bring Technicians Together for Problem Solving

Example: Dave, a technician, is working on a power pole damaged in a storm and runs into trouble with the transformer. Not sure what the problem is, he knows he needs different tools and an extra part. He calls dispatch to start a search for the correct equipment and for another technician with more experience who can help walk him through the repair.

A half-hour later the tools and part are found, and Dave has to go back to the warehouse to pick them up. Paperwork has to be filled out to track the inventory. But, dispatch is less successful finding another technician with the required knowledge of the problem. The job is abandoned for the day--time, money, and perhaps even safety are lost.

Leveraging some of the social-inspired productivity tools, Dave, using his smartphone or tablet, is able to see through the "smart" collaborative platform which other technicians are nearby, the tools or equipment they're carrying, and even the skill sets that are uniquely theirs. This allows Dave to not just communicate, but also to automatically focus on communicating to the right technician, the one best equipped to help him with this particular job.

Dave gets his equipment from the nearest technician and, using drag-and-drop functionality, the technicians instantly record and time-stamp the transaction for inventory control. In the meantime, Dave has set up a chat and gotten some tips from another technician who is familiar with the transformer problem he encountered. The result is that Dave completes the job.

Time, miles driven, paperwork and needless calls to the office are all saved through smarter communication in the field, using social-style tools to solve a problem.

Smarter Communications, Happier Customers

We know from research that companies using these collaborative social platforms as part of their field operations strategy can boost their customers' satisfaction, too. The solutions not only optimize communications from tech-to-tech and tech-to-office--but also tech-to-consumer.

Example: Technician Sondra is scheduled to install an electric smart meter for a single home. The homeowner has confirmed through an online portal that he will be at the house for her arrival for the entire service delivery window time. Sondra has texted him that she's on schedule, which the customer can also see through the online portal, along with the capacity to track her progress--as well as confirm her identity because Sondra's name and photo are displayed on the screen.

But, Sondra discovers along the way that the meter she has is a different model from the customer request. Instead of going through dispatch and embarking on a time-consuming trip to retrieve the correct meter, she first texts an update to the customer. Sondra then uses the smart collaborative tools built into her mobile workforce management app to find the nearest tech who may have the correct meter or is closest to the warehouse to pick one up to deliver to her.

A problem that may have resulted in a lost half or full day is resolved, all the while keeping the customer informed.

Responsive, communicative mobile workforce solutions give customers a sense of control with the process; research has found that 27 percent of US consumers would pay more for better communications about an appointment for a service or delivery. Smart communication apps can lead to substantial drops--50 percent or more--in "where's my service?" inquiries to call centers.

Keeping customers in the loop means updating them on work orders through all available channels, including interactive voice response, text, email or any media of the customer's choice, optimized for mobile devices on which everyone feels comfortable communicating, technician and customer alike.

With unhappy customers, a social network has the power to hurt you. But, you can turn that around by using powerful, social, communicative tools that also help you better plan, collaborate, coordinate and problem solve to do the job better, start to finish.

About the author: Jeffrey Wartgow is vice president of TOA Technologies.

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